Princeton Election Consortium

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Today’s big partisan gerrymandering case: Maryland (Benisek v. Lamone)

March 28th, 2018, 11:40am by Sam Wang

So, oral arguments in Benisek just ended. Here’s the transcript! A round-up of the case is at SCOTUSblog. . Audio will soon be available here.

Bloomberg reports that multiple justices questioned whether a First Amendment-based approach of looking at single districts (as is done for racial gerrymandering) is the right approach to regulate the Maryland gerrymander. To remind everyone…it is possible to analyze Maryland on a statewide basis to identify a statistical anomaly. See my Election Law Journal analysis here. Rick Hasen posts a pessimistic take here. He thinks there’s no consensus about how to define a partisan gerrymander, and he thinks this is a problem.

However, here at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project we see a way forward. As PGP’s Will Adler points out, in both Whitford and Benisek oral arguments, Justice Kennedy asked the same question: whether it would be permissible for a state law to mandate that partisanship be a “predominant consideration.” This seems to be a starting point. After that, sure, there’s a question of how to set a standard. In my view it would involve establishing the idea that a map is extreme. As we’ve written before, significance testing provides a path forward: t-test, mean-median difference, Monte Carlo, and map-drawing. They’re all related ideas, and they comprise a valuable toolbox for the judge.

PGP’s own Brian Remlinger was in the room for oral argument. He reports:

That was something. The liberals tore into the Republican plaintiff for not having a clear test, but Roberts tore into the Democrats for discriminating against the Republican voters, so his vote may be in play. He seems interested in doing something. Overall, I am more optimistic that it’s not game over when Kennedy retires.

I think whatever the Court does will include clear guidance on how to distinguish an unacceptable gerrymander from normal redistricting. Whitford wasn’t mentioned too much, so I didn’t get a sense of how the specific standard would be structured, except it will likely have some effects prong involving showing that a map substantially changes the electoral results.

Every justice seemed to think there’s no way that the gerrymander could be cured before November, which raises procedural issues for reversing the injunction. The Court might uphold the denial of the injunction, on the grounds that there’s no irreparable harm, but then establish a standard that would govern the Maryland trial as it goes forward.

Specific justices: The liberals won’t do anything to harm the anti-gerrymandering cause. Alito was dismissive and a vote against. Gorsuch didn’t say much.

In summary, Roberts’s vote might be in play! But we still don’t know what a standard would look like.

→ 8 CommentsTags: Redistricting

Job opportunity – Legal/Statistical Analyst, Princeton Gerrymandering Project

March 26th, 2018, 4:41pm by brian

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project is hiring a Legal Analyst! The PGP combines law with statistics to develop and explain mathematical tools to detect partisan gerrymandering. This person will join a team with expertise in statistics, law, computational simulation, mathematical rigor, and practical policy.

As the 2020 redistricting looms, the PGP is taking the fight to the states, where we will explore possibilities for ballot- and litigation-based reform. The legal analyst will be responsible for digging into the legal, political, and statistical issues surrounding redistricting in the states we target. She/he will research the regulations governing redistricting, the ways in which the process played out in the last several redistricting cycles, the background politics, and current reform efforts.

Additionally, the legal analyst will keep abreast of redistricting news and scholarship, both legal and statistical. The political, legal, and academic landscape changes rapidly, and upcoming Supreme Court decisions are likely to transform the field. A strong understanding of the field is essential to informing the PGP’s strategic choices and for collaborating with other members of the PGP on computational and statistical projects.

Finally, the legal analyst will co-author academic and popular press articles about PGP methods. She/he will also handle press inquiries and external communications.

The ideal candidate for this job is a strong writer with basic knowledge of courts and the law. She/he will also be familiar and comfortable with discussing both legal and mathematical/statistical issues with academic and lay audiences. This position is suitable for someone between college and graduate or professional school. More experienced applicants are also welcome. In all cases, she/he must be available full-time.

Soon there will be an official job posting, at which time the goals and requirements may be modified slightly. In advance of that, I invite interested people to send me an email at and cc Brian Remlinger ( to describe qualifications and availability.

Comments Off on Job opportunity – Legal/Statistical Analyst, Princeton Gerrymandering ProjectTags: Redistricting

Politics and Polls: Can Trump Actually Shut Down the Mueller Investigation?

March 22nd, 2018, 4:45pm by Sam Wang

As Trump hostility to Mueller’s investigation heats up, can he actually shut it down? On Politics And Polls, I talk to Fordham Law professor and Trump-investigation expert Jed Shugerman about fail-safes that Mueller may have put in place, and legal theories of the case. Listen to the new Politics & Polls!

Oh, and in case you missed them, Julian and I have had some awesome recent episodes: one with the Drive-By Truckers, one with political writer E.J. Dionne, and one with historian Linda Gordon on the resurgence of the KKK in the 1920’s, and what it means for the present day. Quite a range of guests – we’re very pleased with the cool people we have had on!

→ 11 CommentsTags: President · U.S. Institutions

Game over in Pennsylvania!

March 19th, 2018, 3:49pm by Sam Wang

Today came two rulings. First, a three-judge court turned down a challenge to the redrawn Pennyslvania Congressional map. Then, a few hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court did the same.

These were long-shot cases, since they would have involved finding that the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Constitution was in conflict with the United States Constitution, for example if there were an affirmative right to gerrymander in the latter. It would have been tortured logic, and it appears that there were not enough votes on the Supreme Court to go there. This outcome is logically unsurprising…but still a relief.

There was talk about finding a reason to overturn the state court’s decision using Article I, which states that the legislature has the power to set the manner of elections. However, this would go against considerable court precedent. That might fly when the Presidency is at stake (i.e. Bush v. Gore), but to swing half a dozen Congressional seats? As of 2018, no.

So…game over for partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation! At least for 2018, and probably 2020. After that…we start over again with the next Census and redistricting.

→ 15 CommentsTags: 2018 Election · 2020 Election · Redistricting

Pennsylvania’s (current) 18th CD: The top of the levee

March 13th, 2018, 9:08pm by Sam Wang

Whoever wins today’s special election to fill the open Congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, it wasn’t supposed to be close. It’s part of a statewide partisan gerrymander, a district that a generic Republican ought to win by about 20 points. In November 2016, Donald Trump got 58% to Hillary Clinton’s 39%. The closeness of the race suggests there’s a massive wave of discontent with the Republicans.

If Conor Lamb (D) wins, that doesn’t mean that gerrymanders don’t matter. Instead, it means that even the highest levee can be breached if the wave is high enough. This year’s potential Democratic wave is evidently very high indeed. If this race is near-tied in a district that Donald Trump carried by 19 points in 2016, that is a massive swing – consistent with other special elections in 2018, which have swung by a median of 23 points toward Democrats.

Follow the NYT predictive tracker here, and DailyKos Elections here.

→ 15 CommentsTags: 2018 Election

Climate life events

February 25th, 2018, 9:39pm by Sam Wang

This graph was done using a simple but outstanding app to make climate change personal. [GitHub]

→ 7 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Introducing the new Pennsylvania Congressional map

February 19th, 2018, 3:20pm by Sam Wang

Here’s the new Congressional map for Pennsylvania, drawn by advisor to the court Nate Persily. I think it’s a landmark contribution to the understanding of partisan fairness, in one of the most politically heterogeneous states in the Union – “Pennsatucky.”

For anyone who’s drawn such maps, this particular one is a pleasure to look at. It does a great job at compliance. It splits 13 counties, less than any plan offered to the court. The only plan that splits fewer counties or municipalities is the “compact D gerrymander” that the Princeton Gerrymandering Project posted over the weekend. So in terms of basic compliance, it wins.

But more importantly, this map undoes the effects of population clustering. As we showed over the weekend, it is just possible within the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s rules to allow a plan that reaches partisan balance, i.e. a 9 D, 9 R outcome for a 50-50 statewide vote. However, those rules bias the range of possibilities in favor of Republicans, so that a Republican gerrymander – one of the proposals on the table – was also a possibility.

It appears as if the advisor was either trying to achieve partisan balance or build competitive races (as opposed to, say, picking a plan that was in the middle of the range of possible maps). His map – and the one we gave over the weekend – show that even under the constraint of compactness and not splitting political jurisdictions, it is still possible to build a map that treats both parties approximately equally. Notably, he did so while keeping most population centers together. This map passes all three of our tests of partisan asymmetry.

This outcome fits with an unspoken principle in the court’s decision of partisan symmetry: if the two sides swapped vote totals, then their seat totals should be swapped as well. This fundamental principle of fairness underlies our proposed standards for detecting gerrymandering, as described in our amicus brief in the Whitford case.

It is commonly claimed that partisan bias arises naturally from the way that voters distribute themselves. Certainly such a bias could be visible if one drew thousands (or millions) of maps at random. But districting is not a random process. It is done by human beings, and reflects real-life political and social considerations. In that respect, we shouldn’t care about millions of maps; we should only care about one map, the one that is drawn. Persily has shown that it is possible to maintain all the old principles of geographic contiguity, and still create an overall map that does not give either party an undue advantage. In my view, this is a big deal because it shows that the ideal of partisan symmetry can be a primary criterion for drawing a map.

It seems clear that the Pennsylvania GOP made a serious tactical error. The governor and Democratic legislators had offered a plan that would have retained some GOP advantage. The new plan erases that advantage entirely. In our analysis, based on the 2016 vote the new map produces 5 Democratic districts, 7 Republican districts, and 6 tossup districts. The maximum likely performance by Democrats in 2018 would be 11 seats, a gain of 6 seats over their current representation. That gain would be one-fourth of the 24 seats they need to win control of the House of Representatives. Of course, some of those gains could also go away in a later year that was good for Republicans. That’s the point of electoral competition.

→ 28 CommentsTags: 2018 Election · Redistricting

Pennsylvania partisanship, part II: Democrats in chains

February 17th, 2018, 8:02am by Sam Wang

The following analysis is a team effort by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. John O’Neill drew maps which he, Brian Remlinger, Will Adler, and Madeleine Parker analyzed. For other people’s plans, we cited the work of Brian Amos.

In a previous post, we evaluated the Pennsylvania GOP leaders’ proposal for redrawing the congressional map and found strong signs of partisanship. We got curious: under the limits set by the state Supreme Court, what is the maximum advantage in the other direction, favoring Democrats?

We did this in order to put all the proposals into context. If we know the extreme limit on how favorably a map could treat Democrats while following the Court’s directives, then we can evaluate the partisanship of the many Democratic proposals.

We find that the Court’s simple rules (compactness, equal population, and minimization of county/municipality splitting) may still allow Republicans to commit mischief, but they effectively limit Democratic opportunities to gerrymander. Interestingly, Democratic players didn’t go nearly as far as they could have, but instead drew plans that were at the middle of the range of possibilities.

Here’s a map that is impressively compact:
It is the most Democrat-favoring map we could draw under the court’s criteria. On average, it would elect 9 Democrats, 9 Republicans for an equally split statewide vote (using 2012/2016 presidential vote data), with 7 safe seats for each party and 4 tossup seats where the expected margin between parties would be 10 points or less. Democrats can get to 11 seats if they win all the tossups. That’s still 1-2 seats less lopsided than the Republican proposal in the other direction – and requires a wave election.

As far as literal compliance with “floor criteria” goes, this map splits 12 counties, 14 municipalities, and 11 precincts, equal to or fewer than all of the plans we examined. It also performs as well as or better than the other proposed maps on compactness metrics. There could well be a better map out there by these criteria, but we haven’t seen it.

This table contains an analysis of the map above (“Princeton D compact”) and other maps. Click to enlarge:

Democrats gain the biggest advantage by splitting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. This is the converse of what we saw in the Republican plan, which packed those cities tightly while splitting other communities such as Reading, Montgomery County, and greater Harrisburg.

It’s possible to squeeze out a little more performance by being less attentive to the compactness metrics. The following map (“Princeton D extreme” in the table above) still makes fewer splits than all the submitted plans. Compared with the top map, it converts one safe Republican seat to a toss-up. It’s still a 9-9 map, but its ceiling performance is 12 Democrats, 6 Republicans.

Assuming that the Republican legislative leaders’ proposed map of February 9 was as favorable to their party as possible, this means that under any nominally Court-compliant map, Republicans will always win at least 6 seats and Democrats will always win at least 6 seats. The remaining 6 seats — a full one-third of them — are limited not by geography, but by the whims of redistricters.

Interestingly, none of the remedial plans submitted to the Court, even those submitted by Democratic politicians, sought to maximize Democratic seats. All submitted plans had between 6 and 8 Democratic seats, with most plans settling on 7 Democratic seats. Basically, everybody but the Republicans played it down the middle.

Why didn’t Democrats go for broke? Maybe they think toss-up seats are flippable in 2018. Maybe they wanted to protect their five incumbents. Maybe they prioritized “softer” criteria like maintaining certain political or economic communities. Or maybe they are simply good-faith actors. Whether the Court picks one of their plans or draws its own, the outcome is highly likely to be more fair than the existing plan.

One lesson here is that the median neutrally-drawn map appears to be about tilted two seats toward the Republicans. This cycle, partisan gerrymandering added two seats on top of that.

Back to our maps…to be clear, we don’t believe that our maps are good simply because they perform well on the metrics. Looking at our map one way, it’s the extreme endpoint of a range of possibilities. Looking at it another way, it shows that it’s possible to attain representational equity even in a state as heterogeneous as Pennsylvania.

Whichever way you look at it, we have shown that the simple rules and traditional redistricting criteria used here by the Court can only do so much to constrain partisan actors. The court’s floor criteria of compactness and no splitting can be useful to prevent the flagrant geographic offenses we saw on both sides of the aisle nationwide in 2011. However, a truly fair process can only result from a nonpartisan process that examines the many tradeoffs in redistricting.

The fine print:

We used 2016 2-way presidential vote to categorize districts as Democratic or Republican. 2016 was probably the high-water mark for Republicans in Pennsylvania, so our map (and the other maps) may be slightly more favorable to Democrats than the data suggests. We did not examine incumbency, nor did we attempt to keep communities together beyond counties or municipalities. The plans above were drawn by John O’Neill, an expert with real life redistricting experience. We can’t rule out that there is some plan much more advantageous to Democrats than what he drew, though we suspect not. A shapefile of our map is available here, and summary statistics of our plan, as well as some others, are here.

We examined the following maps, which are available at the PA Supreme Court website. The analysis here taken from Brian Amos on Twitter, unless otherwise noted. All analysis uses 2016 presidential results:

  • PA House Democratic caucus’ plan: 6 safe D, 1 lean D, 2 lean R, 9 safe R

  • PA State Senate Democratic caucus’ plan: 6 safe D, 1 lean D, 2 lean R, 9 safe R

  • Gov. Wolf’s plan: 5 safe Dem, 2 lean Dem, 2 lean R, 9 safe R

  • Lt. Gov. Stackhouse’s plan: 5 safe D, 2 lean D, 2 lean R, 9 safe R

  • Petitioner’s plans: 5 safe D, 2-3 lean D, 1-2 lean R, 8-9 safe R

  • Republican intervenors’ plan: 5 Dem safe, 1 Dem lean, 2 R lean, 10 R safe

  • Republican legislative plan (aka Scarnati and Turzai): 5 safe D, 1 lean D, 3 lean R, 9 safe R (analysis)

  • Schneider/Wolf amicus plans: 4-5 Dem safe, 2-3 Dem lean, 3 Rep lean, 8 Rep safe (analysis)

→ 4 CommentsTags: 2018 Election · Redistricting

Happy Valentine’s Day!

February 14th, 2018, 1:05pm by Sam Wang

From the crew at Voters Not Politicians in Michigan, we have this awesomely dorky yet sweet sentiment: Be My Valid-Line!

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When simple rules aren’t enough

February 13th, 2018, 6:36pm by Sam Wang

As the old political-science saying goes, “all redistricting is gerrymandering.” Inevitably, choices and tradeoffs have to be made. When it comes to representation, the resulting map can end up balanced – unless partisan advantage is made the primary criterion.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court set down clear “floor criteria” for what was absolutely required in the revised map. They said that counties, cities, and wards should not be divided, except to achieve equal population as required by federal law, and to comply with the Voting Rights Act. However, they also said (see page 124 of the decision):

We recognize…that there exists the possibility that advances in map drawing technology and analytical software can potentially allow mapmakers, in the future, to engineer congressional districting maps, which, although minimally comporting with these neutral “floor” criteria, nevertheless operate to unfairly dilute the power of a particular group’s vote for a congressional representative.

Although compliant with floor criteria, a close look at the Pennsylvania GOP legislative leaders’ proposed map reveals some of the choices they made. All it takes is an overlay of population density. Here are some examples. [Read more →]

→ 3 CommentsTags: 2018 Election · Redistricting